Y esterday Valarie and I decided to make the 45-minute drive from Bethlehem to Reading, Pennsylvania to see an exhibition of works by Keith Haring, her favorite artist, at the Reading Public Museum. (Haring was born in Reading.) But it wasn’t a 45-minute drive. It was two hours - each way. There was road construction on Route 222 that backed up cars in each direction for miles. From now on that three-digit number will no longer conjure the 1970s television show, but the kind of hopelessness that only bumper-to-bumper traffic can bring. I imagined making a U-turn, getting in the shoulder, and driving the rest of the way to the museum in reverse. For the first time in my life, I yearned for an SUV, so I could give up the asphalt and just drive through the adjacent farmland.
When we finally got to Reading, the name of which I knew since childhood from the Reading Railroad on Monopoly, it still took almost another hour to find the museum. We were going by Mapquest directions that told us to go from Penn Street to 5th Avenue, but what we didn’t realize that there were two of each in this God-forsaken town. And I say ‘God-forsaken’ not just because of our infinitely long journey, but also because Reading, Pennsylvania is -- and I’m not resorting to hyperbole when I say this -- an absolute shit hole. We felt like we had been transported back in time to the worst days of urban blight in the 1970s. With memories of my biggest cinematic guilty pleasure, National Lampoon’s Vacation, I half expected if we stopped to ask for directions that someone would send us past the ‘Rib Tips’ sign to a Torino with no wheels to ask their cousin Jackie, while his friends painted ‘Honky Lips’ on the side of our car.
But once we got there, the exhibit was terrific. Despite being phenomenally popular more than fifteen years after his death, Keith Haring isn’t always taken as seriously as he should be by the more academic portion of the art world. Haring’s work was largely inspired by cartoons and graffiti, and he often worked very quickly. It was about process for Keith Haring as much as product. But this retrospective showed without any shred of a doubt what a brilliant artist he was. Seen collectively, his work not only revealed the aforementioned artistic/cultural antecedents, but also felt almost tribal, as if it were a contemporary version of cave paintings. Some works even showed a quasi-abstract quality, with Haring’s trademark radiating baby figures and barking dogs incorporated into vast patchworks that took on the power of nonrepresentational expresssionism.
The drive back was even worse. We got stuck in stop-and-go traffic again. No, wait, that’s inaccurate. It was just stop, and no go. After taking an hour to make it the last ten miles through Trexlertown, we finally emerged from the endless line of cars, the sight of the I-78 freeway appearing like a lighthouse to two fishermen tossed about in the waves of a hundred-year storm. For a couple of miles, our car sailed along in the fast lane with the speedometer finally raising from the equivalent of about 7 o’clock to more like midnight.
Then the rains came. And I don’t mean sprinkles. I don’t mean a torrential downpour. I mean like a mother-fuckin’ monsoon. Our windshield wipers were on that ridiculously high setting were it feels like you’re in a movie that’s been put into fast forward, but even then one could barely see past the hood of the car. The traffic slowed down to twenty miles an hour. When we exited off I-78 into Bethlehem after about six miles and another half hour, the flash flooding was well underway. Cars were kicking up splashes almost as high as buildings, and sometimes even seemed like they were going to float away. Looking in the rearview mirror amidst this latest slowdown, I saw that my eyes had taken on the look of cue-balls, my skin the pallor of a corpse. I felt like a jack-in-the-box that had been wound and wound but never allowed to spring.
But you know what? It was still worth it. To see Valarie’s look of wonder and glee at this awe-inspiring collection of Keith Haring works was absolutely priceless. Over the last several weeks, she’s been recovering from a bout with severe anemia, and even now she can feel faint at the drop of a hat and barely able to walk. But she clutched my arm as we took baby steps around the Reading Public Museum, and those pearly whites were showing ear to ear. Even if I may have been fantasizing about dropping napalm over Reading, Pennsylvania, I’m glad we made it to that exhibit first.